Battle of the Hybrids Begins

honda-insight1We suspected it would happen, and it has: Toyota dropped its price on the 2010 Prius for the Japanese market after Honda’s Insight (left) became the country’s best-selling car. The Big H sold 10,481 of these 1.3-liter, CVT cars in April. Toyota claims 80,000 preorders for the Prius while marking it down $3,100 to bring it in line with the Honda. So it looks like we’ve got a price war brewing.

The Prius will go on sale in the U.S. in about two weeks at $21,750 MSRP, $1,000 cheaper than the 2009 model. Honda grabbed the edge in Japan because it basically copied the Prius, used a cheaper (some would say inferior) hybrid system, and jumped into a market hungry for cheap, fuel-efficient cars.

However, not everybody loves the Insight. Jeremy Clarkson crucified it, calling the car

terrible. Biblically terrible. Possibly the worst new car money can buy. It’s the first car I’ve ever considered crashing into a tree, on purpose, so I didn’t have to drive it any more.

The biggest problem, and it’s taken me a while to work this out, because all the other problems are so vast and so cancerous, is the gearbox. For reasons known only to itself, Honda has fitted the Insight with something called constantly variable transmission (CVT).

It doesn’t work. Put your foot down in a normal car and the revs climb in tandem with the speed. In a CVT car, the revs spool up quickly and then the speed rises to match them. It feels like the clutch is slipping. It feels horrid. And the sound is worse.

He goes on: That sound is like sitting “a dog on a ham slicer.” The car feels like it’s been “made from steel so thin, you could read through it.” And so on. The rant continues, with Jeremy properly questioning, I think, the whole hybrid mentality. In the quest for every last mile per gallon, have we overlooked the considerable costs of production? The battery problems? The fact that we can get comparable mileage from a Golf diesel that’s built better and performs better should give the tree-huggers pause.

And look at this dippy commercial from Toyota:

Sure, there are trade-offs in all this controversy, and some of this hybrid pie in the sky is being baked by the government. Ford today announced a partnership with Xcel Energy to bring 66 electrics and hybrids to the Twin Cities. The project would require federal stimulus money to set up charging stations.

Similarly, hybrid sales are being fueled by government incentives in Germany, France, China, and Japan—some in the form of clunker trade-in bonuses, which have happened in the U.K. and maybe will here. So some of this interest is coming from artificial demand and industry supports.

A buoyant view of our green, plug-in future was also part of Fritz Henderson’s pitch in his last press conference. “I promise you,” he said, “that we have new vehicles that will blow you away,” and he mentioned some. Well and good. Let’s hope GM doesn’t get blown away before they can produce them.

Would you consider buying a new Prius or Insight? Are you hot on the hybrid concept, or do you share some of our skepticism?

—jgoods

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  1. Randy
    May 26th, 2009 at 13:09 | #1

    Jeremy Clarkson…. A wannabee Simon Cowell who loves to drive big-ticket hypercars on somebody else’s credit card. He hates the green car. Gasp, are we shocked yet?

  2. CQ
    May 19th, 2009 at 09:01 | #2

    If it feels like the clutch is slipping like Clarkson has said, than that really would be annoying. I had been driving around my car for a few months with a slipping clutch and it was so frustrating and annoying. I have no way of knowing if he is right but I doubt Clarkson would make it up.

  3. May 18th, 2009 at 16:47 | #3

    Clarkson is the critic of critics so I wouldn’t pay too much attention to his take. I just can’t get into the look. You’d think that they could at least make it a little sleeker to give it more appeal. Not all green people are looking at function, they like form too.

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